If we look back over our lives, we can remember significant life changing moments… try it.
Think back over your teens and twenties… maybe thirties.
Remember once, when something happened, your life was changed forever?
May have been an encounter, good or bad, with another person.
Maybe an accident.
Birth of your child. Death of a parent.
A conversation that led to a job.
For me, it was something else.
Let me explain:
I was not a prize winning child. Sort of wild and unconventional. My best friend when I was 12 or 13 was a Staff Sergeant out of Fort Bragg who taught me how to cuss like a soldier and light a cigarette in the wind.
At 15 I ran away from home and ended up in Cuba. My grades as a high school freshman were not good. So my parents sent me to Oak Ridge military school, where I joined the drill team.
The way we learned to do right shoulder arms was without moving a muscle other than in our arms and hands, we took our drill M-1s from order arms, to port arms, and then grabbing the butt with our right hand, and only using our right hand, we took the rifle straight up, and with flick of the right thumb turned it 90 degree and after a two count, slowly let it down into the small of our right shoulder… right hand doing all the heavy lifting. Left hand at the end near the small of the stock as it settled into the shoulder and slowly back to the left side.
We did this dozens of time on hundreds of afternoons. So that we could do it crisply individually and then together as a group. And muscles remember.
Made good grades at the military school and went on UNC/Chapel Hill, where my natural rambunctiousness kicked back in. I was a life guard at Myrtle Beach, SC for three summers, took off one fall with two buddies in a 1950 Willis Jeep and drove through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador to Nicaragua… where we were eventually hunted and run out by what was to become the Sandinista. Worked at Miami Beach for some time on return to the States, eventually went back to UNC, but I was like an aged-out Tom Sawyer and bored. Christmas 1963 I visited my ol’ buddy, the 82nd Airborne Division Staff Sergeant, and he told me the life I was living “didn’t feed the dog.” And I needed something. He recommended the Army. Said it had been good by him.
So I joined… and Holy Mother of God, I had no idea how humbling basic training was goin’ to be. New boots made it feel like I was walking around in concrete blocks. Uniform didn’t fit. Steel pot was so heavy that I wobbled my head like a turkey. And they shaved off all my hair. And the platoon sergeant got close in the face of all of us in the platoon, calling us a whole bunch of dirty names. Food was OK, I reckon but we only had minutes to get it down and then out the door. There was KP and scrubbing the latrine. At night sometime – packed in that barracks nose to armpit – I’d lay in bed and think that I really, really made a seriously bad career move.
And then they issued us our M-14s for training, and although this is now more than 50 years later, I can clearly remember how good it was to have that rifle in my hands… and we were called to the company street where our seriously-mean Drill Sergeant Willie O. McGee stood ramrod straight in front of us and told us that this M-14 he had in his hand was the tool of our trade as potential infantrymen… but before we learned how to kill with it, we had to learn how to march with it… and the first thing was the manual of arms… starting with right shoulder arms. And he went through right shoulder arms, and he was just moving his whole body around and in placing the rifle mostly with his left hand on his right shoulder, he moved his head to the left so the rifle wouldn’t hit his DI hat.
He went through it a couple of times and then he gave us the port arms order, and then the right shoulder arms order…. and all around me the other recruits were lumbering through the drill. Some dropped their pieces. Others hit the men on either side of them with their rifles. And I did it like we did at the military school. Back to order arms, I repeated the movement only using my arms. Back to right shoulder arms and then in the middle of that…. Drill Sergeant Willie O. McGee stopped giving the cadence and came into the ranks and stood right in front of me, as all around the recruits were bringing this new equipment back to order arms, with the random clambering of butt plates hitting the country street. McGee looked at me for what seem like a long time and then he looked down at the name on my fatigue shirt, and said, “Parker, do that again.” And I did a pretty standard right shoulder arms… and he said, “No, do it like you did before.”
And after I did, he called me out in front of the platoon and had me do the manual of arms. And I did… and after 5 minutes of this, me finally standing at attention, he leaned in close to me… and almost smiled. What he did was cluck his tongue, like, “that was pretty good,” cluck of the tongue.
And with that, my situation in the US Army changed. Thanks much to McGee’s recommendation at the end of basic training I went on from Advanced Infantry Training to Officer Candidate School, graduating with a commission as a 2nd Lt infantry officer in May 1965. 4 months later I was leading men in jungle combat in Vietnam. Then a good marriage, kids, CIA, world travel, adventure, great friends, published books. And now here I sit, writing this.
Knowing that day on a basic training company street out in the hot George Sun, when I did something simple that was conspicuously good – was significant… and pivotal.